House of Boris

Get to know on stage the man who helped invent screen horror

Get ready, audiences. It's that time of year when, as we head speedily downhill to the year's inevitable demise, there are some major holidays that attract the attention of a lot of folks, young and old. As one might expect there exists great commerce associated with this season, and like so many other enterprises, many of our stages present shows that capitalize on these seasonal events, luring us with their versions of celebration.

At present, of course, we are confronted from every which way with the trappings Halloween. Those who know these things tell us Halloween now commands the second most sales dollars of all holidays, behind only Christmas. No more do homemade costumes and crudely carved jack-o-lanterns serve the once rather tame enterprise of trick-or-treating. The season is celebrated with big parties with Halloween-inspired food, and yards are decked out with light, sound and animated creatures that spring to life when they sense motion.

One of the most celebrated traditions of the Halloween season is watching scary movies. And you can't really talk about the horror genre without going way back to the beginning, to the early decades of the last century, and perhaps no actor is as purely associated with monster movies as is Boris Karloff.

Karloff, of course, will forever be the iconic monster of the 1931 Universal Studios film, Frankenstein. In make-up created by Jack P. Pierce, Karloff became a star, although he had been an actor for many years, even in silent films. But the popularity of the Frankenstein character became Karloff's brand, and for Universal Studios, the character became a franchise. There was Bride of Frankenstein in 1935 and then Son of Frankenstein in 1939.

In 1932, Karloff created another iconic monster role with The Mummy. He was the go-to guy for creating monsters sure to scare, which also meant sure to please, taking his place with Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi.

But there was a lot more to Karloff than creating scary characters. Local actor Charles Prokopp has been a fan for years. He became star-struck in the years that Frankenstein and friends reappeared in TV reruns. He actually met Karloff once in the '60s, and Prokopp said in a phone interview that they talked about acting and Karloff encouraged him to follow his dream to pursue the profession if he thought he had the commitment.

Prokopp says he was attracted to Karloff's willingness to play the darker roles. Prokopp himself has always been drawn to those characters, and he has studied Karloff's life and films for years. Prokopp and his friend and colleague, John R. Gunn, began looking for a property to produce as part of a new theater enterprise in Tucson, Pandaemonium Shadow Shows. He was delighted to find ­– via Facebook, no less – a man named Randy Bowser, in Oregon, who was developing a one-man show about Karloff. Bowser did extensive research about the actor and worked under the watchful eye of Karloff's daughter, Sara, who administers her father's estate from Palm Springs. She approved of the script, called Karloff, and Bowser performed it six times in Salem, Oregon, in November, 2014.

Prokopp was communicating with Bowser during the process and told him that when the show became available for production elsewhere, he was interested. Prokopp had to raid his retirement fund, but Karloff is now playing at the new APCOT theater space on the east side. Prokopp plays Karloff and Gunn has directed, and Halloween seems a perfect time to get to know the man behind the monster.

It's an enormous undertaking for an actor. Prokopp said he started memorizing lines last spring. And it's important to understand that the play is about the actor and not about monsters. And it's long – too long, really. Part of it is the fault of the play, and part is because of this production's pace.

But we do learn a lot about the man, William H. Pratt, an actor from England who moved to Canada and then to the U.S. and became a star. He did dozens of roles in film and his career extended into the '60s on television. He worked on Broadway in the original production of Arsenic and Old Lace, and he was nominated for a Tony for his work with Julie Harris in The Lark, by French playwright Jean Anouilh. He was instrumental in founding what has become the Screen Actors Guild, the union that sets guidelines to ensure that film actors have safe working conditions, which were rather appallingly unsafe in the '30s, and are paid properly. And let's not forget that Karloff lent his voice to the TV version of Dr. Suess' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which he both narrated and voiced of the Grinch.

Prokopp plays Karloff, and we listen to the tales he tells of his life and his work, which include many rather fascinating insights. In fact, it's almost too much of a good thing. It feels bulky–we don't need to know everything that we hear to gain an appreciation of Karloff. It can become ponderous, and at three hours it is uncomfortably long. Part of the bulk is also the extensive pantomime used to show us scenes with others who, of course, aren't there. Many of those could be more simply related. Lighting's another problem, and it often leaves Prokopp in such low light we can't discern his face. And Prokopp often doesn't seek the light, one of the first lessons in being onstage.

Still, this is a good effort, and for those interested in an experience that gives one a genuine appreciation of the actor, Karloff offers an in-depth look at the man and not just the monster.

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